The Xinjiang Flying Tigers may have lost the CBA championship to the Beijing Ducks, but despite this loss, Xinjiangers around the world came away from the games with a powerful meme. It came at the end of game five, after the Tigers rallied and pulled off the win in front of a hostile Beijing crowd of 18,000. Shiralijan the star Uyghur point guard for the Tigers who had been tasked with defending Stephon Marbury – the star of the Ducks (and MVP of the league, according to Anthony Tao!) threw the ball in the air and raised a fist to the crowd while turning a full circle.
He punched the air with his right hand while his left hand grabbed his bicep. Relating the gesture to the semiotics on the Uyghur countryside where he’s from, most Uyghur onlookers immediately interpreted the gesture as a “fuck you” to the crowd that had been chanting “stupid East Turkistani cunt” or “DongTu shabi” for the past three days. According to some Uyghur observers he was reacting as any self-respecting minority might to targeted ethnic slurs.
As a Uyghur friend put it in relation to the situation:
“I think he probably meant ‘f you’ when he did that gesture. Many Uyghurs understood it as that whatever his original intention was because in Uyghur culture it only has that one meaning. Period. I didn’t even know about the meaning of the middle finger until I went to college. That was the main gesture that Uyghur kids used with each other when I was a kid. I think that’s why my friends and many other Uyghurs found it brave that Shirlijan did it in front of thousands of Han. I am sure other gestures of victory would not attract such attention. His status as a Uyghur also brought undue attention to it.”
After the fact, the Beijing Ducks were fined 40,000 yuan for being “uncivilized.” Shiralijan said he didn’t realize that it was a vulgar gesture. He said he was merely imitating the gesture of a character in the animation film One Piece. He was given a warning regarding his “unsportsmanlike conduct.”
Regardless of his intent on Xinjiang social media the image went viral. Kids mimicked the gesture; Uyghur “uncles” from the countryside offered their fists to the camera; young men who self-describe as balangzi (“wolfish” or cocksure young men) punched the sky; Han fans of Shiralijan posed for group portraits.
His fans pointed out that the sports apparel manufacturer Li Ning has put out an ad featuring Shiralijan asking sports fans not to discriminate against the culturally different. They said that what Shiralijan expressed represented the collective defiance of Xinjiang spirit (Shinjang rohi in Uyghur).
In comment sections, Beijing fans talked about how uneducated Shiralijan must be and that he should be taught a lesson. Xinjiang fans, both Han and Uyghur, talked about how proud they were that Shiralijan stood up and was counted as a bad ass.
For a moment, Shiralijan’s passion on the court promoted conversation, and might have — just might have — fostered some understanding…